Practical Ways to Combat a Common Problem | By Carey Nieuwhof
Gossip can divide a congregation and kill church growth. Pastors can turn it around.
If you think back on your leadership, gossip is one of the most pernicious and pervasive challenges to the culture in your church or the progress you’re trying to make on your mission.
Gossip rarely gets talked about in leadership circles, yet it can kill the morale on your team in a heartbeat, lead to high staff turnover, and kills healthy culture faster than a Tesla accelerates.
Gossip is a strange bird: it’s almost like it’s a given that it’s going to happen, and few leaders believe there is anything you can do about it. Even fewer act to stop it.
Yet consider what’s at stake.
Too often, gossip not only goes unchecked but gets rewarded. Too many church “prayer” groups become thinly disguised gossip sessions. People get hurt. Some leave, and even if most people stick around, a gossiping culture is rarely the kind of culture unchurched people are attracted to.
What’s worse is that many Christians create a hierarchy of sins when the scripture creates no such hierarchy. Many Christians will treat sexual sin like it’s the worst of sins but then gossip about sexual sin as though they did nothing wrong. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Again and again, gossip hurts people, saddens God, kills progress, and stifles growth. Yet Christians keep doing it.
So how do you put a stop to gossip? Here are three things I’ve found to be effective.
Gossiping Christians had been a pet peeve of mine since I was a kid. I grew up in a gossipy church and was surrounded by gossip as a kid and just hated it. Sure, at times, I participated in it, but as I became a leader, I realized how deadly it was and decided to make a break.
3 Rules to Stop Gossip Dead in Its Tracks
So, when I became a church leader, I was determined to figure out how to create a culture where gossip gets killed before it started.
You know what? The approach worked.
Here are three rules to help you stop gossip dead in its tracks and banish it for good. By the way, this works in your business or company as well.
Rule One: Stop Gossiping
Step one is pretty simple. Stop gossiping.
You really can’t expect others to do what you’re unwilling to do. I realized early on that I was part of the problem. I told stories out of school.
One phrase helped more than any other as I repeated it to myself and to others: That’s not my story to tell.
Remembering that stopped me before I shared something that wasn’t personal to me.
And it stopped me when people asked me for information about a person or situation. For example, if someone told me they had terminal cancer, and another person asked, “How’s so and so?”, unless the person instructed me to tell others, I wouldn’t break the news. That’s not my story to tell, I’d say to myself.
If people asked me, “I heard so and so quit their job!” I wouldn’t take the bait.
I’d just say, “Oh, I haven’t talked to them in a while,” and then changed the subject.
And even if it were public knowledge, I would change the subject after a brief acknowledgment because the person in question wasn’t there.
Gossip starts with you as a leader, and it stops with you.
Rule Two: Go Direct, and Tell People to Leave Your Office
One of the traps leaders, particularly senior leaders, innocently fall into is when team members come into your office to talk about a person they’re struggling with.
To some extent, this is natural. It’s also deadly except under the strictest guidelines.
Let’s say two team members, Jon and Amber, struggle to get along.
Jon comes into your office and says, “I don’t know what to do with Amber. I’m so frustrated!”
If you want to stop gossip, here’s what you do.
The next sentence out of your mouth is this question: “Jon, I can understand that, but have you talked to Amber?”
If the answer is no (and usually it’s no), you tell Jon that you can’t discuss it with him until he goes directly to Amber to have a conversation (in my office, we call this the “Go direct” policy.)
One of three things will happen.
⦁ Jon goes to Amber and resolves the problem.
⦁ Jon realizes it’s not a huge deal, doesn’t go to Amber, and drops the issue. (This will happen way more than you think. It’s not a bad thing either because it stops people from being petty.)
⦁ Jon goes to Amber, can’t resolve the problem, and returns to you. At that point, it’s fair game to discuss what to do next.
95% of the time, scenarios 1 and 2 happen. 5% of the time, you help Jon and Amber solve a difficult problem, which is part of your job.
100% of the time, it stops gossip because nobody’s talking inappropriately behind each other’s backs.
When I started using this technique, it got fun. The staff would walk into my office and say, “Hey, can I talk to you for a second? I have a problem with Matt.”
Before I could say anything, they’d stop themselves mid-sentence and say, “Okay, wait a minute, you’re going to ask me if I’ve talked to Matt, and I haven’t, so I’m going to leave your office right now and talk to Matt. Thanks.”
I didn’t need to say a word.
Then, after a while, the practice of going direct to the person you’re struggling with became automatic.
Here’s the principle: Talk to people, not about them.
Rule Three: Get Rid of the Gossipers
Once you’re practicing a no gossip policy personally and among all your senior leaders, the next step is to watch for it anywhere it crops up.
If you see key leaders gossiping, address it. Most will respond and embrace the new culture.
A simple way to phrase it is, “At our church, we talk to people, not about them.”
If you have some people who won’t cease and desist, either let them go (if they’re on staff) or, if they’re volunteers, have them step down.
It’s amazing how healthy a culture can become if you model a no-gossip policy and expect it from others.
So, can you ever talk about people when they’re not in the room?
Well, if you’re saying great things, sure. But that’s never what gossip is about.
The one exception I’ve made to Rule 2 is when a team member hasn’t yet talked to the person they’re struggling with but wants to confer with me on how to approach that conversation.
Back to the above example. Jon comes in and has a problem with Amber, but rather than tell me about it, he instead says, “I want to deal with this situation, but I feel like I need you to coach me. In the conversation, do you think I should approach Amber this way, or would another approach be better? I can’t decide. What do you think?”
That’s fair game because you’re coaching Jon, not listening to a gripe session. That’s not gossip. That’s help.
The church I led eventually grew to thousands of people. And guess what? There was almost no gossip. And when we had important or sensitive information to share, it never got leaked ahead of time.
If you follow these steps, here’s the payoff: you kill gossip before it kills your mission.
Learn more about Carey Nieuwhof. Be sure to check out his podcast. This article originally appeared here.